Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to book author and Skeptic editor Michael Shermer about why scientific media, professional organizations, and academic departments are increasingly succumbing to progressive ideological fads.
Jonathan Kay (JK): Michael welcome to the podcast. You’re a longtime friend of Quillette, and you've written for us. Also, you wrote for Scientific American for more than two decades. Is that right?
Michael Shermer (MS): 18 years, April 2001 to January 2019.
JK: One of the subjects we're going to talk about today is going to be the intrusion of maybe progressive ideology into science and science journalism, but maybe you could talk a little bit about the opposite phenomenon because what's ironic here is that I think you've dedicated a good part of your career to disputing the intrusion of what might be called conservative or religious Christian ideas into the coverage of science?
MS: Yeah, I certainly have. I wrote a book called Why Darwin Matters, which was all about the denial of evolution or the skepticism of evolution by certain populations which are highly predictable based on their religious beliefs and politics, namely Christian conservatives are the least likely to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. And so that's been a problem for a long time. It's mostly until the last, maybe 10, 15 years that we've often thought of conservatives as being science deniers and liberals as being the ones that are champions of the science book. And now that seems to be in something of a reversal. But if you actually look at the real history, it’s conservatives and Christians who tend to be skeptical [not just of] evolution, but also climate change and, you know, a few other topics. But if you look at liberals, they too are concerned about scientific findings related to say GMOs or any kind of product or technology that benefits large corporations, let's say. Monsanto is always the favorite target, uh, there. Or big pharma [which is] making so much money on the pandemic, that sort of thing, but also in the social sciences, the denial of human nature, you know, the blank slate model.
JK: I guess what I'm asking here is if I went and found the Michael Shermer from c2000, around the time you started writing your Scientific American column, would that version of you be surprised to learn that two decades hence, a lot of the pushback against science would come from progressives.
MS: Well, in principle, no, I wouldn't be surprised because I did see it back then, even in the '90s, even in the '80s, the whole idea of political correctness corrupting the social sciences was pretty prominent, even when I was in college in the '70s.
JK: But political correctness is not inherently anti-scientific.
MS: But it's there. It can be. It could be. It just depends on how it's applied and what the goal of it is. But again, this, this sort of blank slate notion that, you know, culture is everything, environment’s everything, and therefore we can engineer society to be fair and more just from the top down by just tweaking the dials of culture and politics and economic policy and so forth, then we can correct these injustices because biology has nothing to do with it—that's been around for a long time. That's really post-World War II. And for understandable reasons, again, you know, the whole eugenics program, which by the way, in the 1920s and 30s was primarily promoted by progressives (what we would today call progressives, far left liberals). The whole eugenics movement was a liberal movement. The idea there, again [was that] engineering society to be fair and just, we need to adjust both the culture and the biology. And now of course, after World War II, you know, liberals realize what a catastrophically bad idea eugenics was. So they dumped it and said, well, that was a right wing cause. So really these issues have been around for a long time. Really, at least a century, you know what's newer today, I guess is just the intensity of it, perhaps enhanced by social media. So the, the general tone—no, I wouldn't be surprised. But I guess what has surprised me is the censoriousness of the left. That it wasn't, that you know, that we should debate these ideas and show why they're wrong. It's that these ideas should not even be spoken of almost as if the words themselves were totemic. You know, that this article should not be published, this professor should be fired, these ideas should never, ever be discussed and put in the marketplace of ideas to be refuted. Not even that, at least that used to be a liberal cause you know, we'll have open debate and disputation and we'll show why the other side is wrong. That's not even on the table anymore.
JK: Here in Canada, where, where I live and work, Tommy Douglas, revered left hero of 20th century new Democrat politics … was in his early days, something of eugenicist. Karl Marx was as a phrenologist. As disgusting as it is to imagine, a lot of these reviled ideas, at one point among … [among what] we would now call progressives—it was seen as part of the recipe for bettering humanity. So I'm going to send people to your Substack. There's an article that you wrote on November 17th, 2021. A lot of people are reading it now, for reasons we'll get into: “Scientific American Goes Woke.” You catalog some of the really weird stuff that Scientific American has been publishing. And by the way, Scientific American has been around (how long?), since  … or before the U S civil war. And we were talking about the importance of emphasizing ideas, like evolution. They ran one article, July 5th, 2021: “Denial of Evolution is a Form of White Supremacy.” And the argument here is that as you described, because we are all from Africa and thus black, it's true. We're all ultimately from Africa. The author, one Allison Hopper [argues that] evolution, deniers, i.e., creationists are ipso facto white supremacists because they want to deny their black roots. Published July 5th, 2021. What's interesting is you note that one of the groups in the United States that is most likely to be statistically creationists are black Americans, who are apparently carrying water for the white supremacists by embracing creationism. This is some pretty whacky stuff. Was there a particular date at Scientific American when you first saw this kind of thing getting into print?
MS: Uh, well, I just noticed it in the last two columns that I had written in late 2018. In my Skeptic column here on Substack, I kind of give the details of why those two columns were rejected and had to be revised because they were objecting to the way I had presented this particular argument about child abuse and that [used this example] … saying that, you know, that adults who abuse children were themselves abused as children. That was a pretty common hypothesis that psychologists floated around, but that hasn't held up very well, because what about all the child abusers who were not abused as children? Or what about all the children who were abused and grew up to be a loving parent and wouldn't dream of abusing their children? And so, you have those counter examples or counterfactual examples, which I call the fallacy of excluded exceptions and the editor at the time (not the current editor now) objected to this, saying, well, the child abuse is a harmful thing. It's a painful thing. And we can't say stuff like this. And it's like, my column had nothing to do with how painful it is to somebody who's a victim. That's not what this is about. It's a scientific column discussing how you determine causality when there's a hypothesis on the table and you have to consider the counterfactual example. So that was the first note like, huh, I wonder, that's kind of a weird thing to say.
JK: By the way, what I found weird about that example is your logic was actually at least indirectly imputing more moral responsibility for child abuse to the actual people who are perpetrating abuse, because you're not saying that this is a strictly deterministic thing that it's just, well, if you were abused, you're going to be an abuser and, and vice versa. To a certain extent, I think you were making an argument for holding people to account more strenuously.
MS: Yes, yeah, exactly.
JK: Maybe they just imagined that someone would snapshot that little snippet of text from your article on Twitter. And they feared that someone would take it completely out of context. Is that the fear that editors are actually preempting trolls who take stuff out of context and…
MS: That’s probably one factor. The fear that somebody will be offended, I think, is in the back of the mind of all editors because we, we know what happens when articles go viral and the Twitter-verse explodes. So, you know, I get that, but, so what, it's just the way it goes. Quillette is dedicated to publishing controversial subjects … and you know, if you're not offending somebody, really, you're not doing your job. So whether somebody is offended or not, it's just irrelevant. We have to ignore that.
JK: There’s this phenomenon you’re describing, and this goes back to late 2018, of being overly cautious. But the examples here from 2021 just absolutely go beyond—it's like on another level. And again, this is post George Floyd. You have one column here. It's difficult to imagine that this isn't satire. And to the extent that's not satire, it's difficult to imagine that it didn't appear like in Vox or Slate or Vice—what I call the monosyllable progressive outlets. And the title is “Why the term ‘Jedi’ is problematic for describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” And the background here. This is September 23rd, 2021. The background here is that some people who are promoting justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion gave it a fun name: “Jedi,” I don't think it's in wide circulation yet, but some people are using it. And this person wrote a whole essay, which was published by, what at least at one time was the most esteemed, certainly the most vulnerable, lay scientific publication in the United States. And here's a quote: “Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police monks [JK: that's true] prone to white saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution such as violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of Jedi mind tricks, et cetera. The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicted….” So is it possible? And this is a serious question. Like, is it possible they got spoofed, that this was a joke?
MS: Like a Pete Boghossian, fake article?
JK: Yeah, like someone won 50 bucks in a bar room bet. And said: “Hey, I bet I can hoax Scientific American, and I'm going to publish this crazy bullshit piece. Like this reads like satire. Has anyone investigated whether this was a joke?
MS: I thought that. I wondered about it. I let it sit for a couple of weeks before I wrote anything. Actually, it was a couple of months. So I mean the whole point of a hoax article is to expose it right away. The moment it's published, which is what, you know, the so-called hoax back in the '90s did … I mean, they expose it immediately. Cause that's the whole point. So the fact that now here we are many months later, nothing has come out about, this being a hoax. No, apparently not. And they've, you know, they've doubled down, you know, with other articles, the one on the racist and patriarchal nature of academic mathematics another article in this time frame. The, the mathematics one was August 12th.
JK: Yeah. This is: “Modern Mathematics Confronts it’s White Patriarchal Past.” Well, so this one, one of us has to be the wokester here. So it's going to be me. This at least argues something real, like not in a galaxy far, far away. It's actually like here on planet Earth. It's absolutely true. There are relatively few women and blacks in academic mathematics as compared to their share of the population at large. The argument here is that it's because of misogyny and racism. Do you at least credit the author here for making an argument that's at least plausibly true?
MS: So it's one hypothesis. Why are there these group differences in X? Well, one explanation is, is there something holding back the lower percentage group, and what's holding them back? Well, it could be racism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry, whatever.
JK: Those things exist.
MS: That's right. Yeah. And so, but here, if you actually read the article, you see, it's just filled with anecdotes, and I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the person telling the stories that this actually happened to them. You know, there's this old professor who grabbed my ass and said “oh, don't you worry your pretty little head about this hard math problem. You know, the guys will figure it out.” Those aren't actual quotes from the article, but that's kind of the tone. I have no doubt that there are some old guys still around, or maybe they were.
JK: It’s suspicious the way those rolled off the tongue, Michael.
MS: Well, these are actually, that's a quote from my, my late partner, Pat Lindsey, who was 73 and grew up in that kind of battle days where, you know, she, she was really smart. And she had a hard time with these old guys just telling her, you know, you just don't belong in this kind of classroom. And you know, so that, that wasn't that long ago, this was like 1960s. That was then. This is now. You know, this isn't the world we live in anymore. You can always find some racist jerk that says something like this or a patriarchal misogynist that makes some wisecrack that is quite inappropriate now. Yes, of course. But what's the overall trend? What's the trend line? And the trend line is, is that, you know, academia is amongst the most liberal institutions in the world. Graduate students down to students. They're pretty liberal. They're very far left leaning. And so, while there may still be some old guys in mathematics that are, you know, hanging on and they're 80 or something and they still harbor those old attitudes. Most of the younger people we know from surveys are not, are not like that at all. And most departments are scrambling to hire women and people of color. They’re desperately searching. They want to do the right thing. They want to correct the past. So, what is the cause of the problem? Because I don't see that's the problem anymore. And so there, now we have to float a second hypothesis. Well, maybe there's a pipeline. So, this is the second hypothesis that there's fewer women applying for those jobs. Well, why are there fewer women applying for those jobs? So the second hypothesis, well, it goes back to let's say middle school, where girls are discouraged from going into STEM courses in middle school and then high school. And by the time they get to college, they're just down a different track and they don't go into those fields. So you end up with a gender asymmetry like that. Okay. That's possible. And that used to be the case. Uh, Sally Ride, Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut. She had a program in the '90s to encourage young girls in middle school to stay in math classes, stay in engineering and physics and so on. And that was a real thing at the time. And I remember she came to Caltech and gave a talk, which is a pretty male dominated institution. And again, I know most of the people at Caltech, you know, they're very liberal. They're trying to do the right thing. But the pipeline doesn't give them as many options. It's just not as many women applying for those jobs. Okay, so the third hypothesis, which has kind of an evolutionary argument to it is that the pipeline is a symmetrical like that because men and women differ in their interests of career pathway. That is, vocational interests. And we know from research on, if you give people a kid say, that sixth, seventh grade, eighth grade vocational interests. And then you give them again in high school and then you kind of track what they ended up doing in college and in, in life for careers, they match up pretty closely. That is the, that is the kids. And. Let's say 13, 14, 15 are, are telling these poll takers or the test takers. This is what I'm interested in doing. And there, you get a division between men and women of things versus people. So people related jobs versus things related jobs. And men are more interested in the things. Women are more interested in the people. Okay. That's the kind of the overview. I'm oversimplifying. But, so for example, in this article in Scientific American about this asymmetry in graduate degrees in mathematics between men and women. Okay. It's true. But I looked it up. I found a dataset on the doctoral degrees by field and gender from 2018 to 2019. And so they're right, like in engineering, it's 25 percent female, 75 percent male graduate degrees. And math and computer sciences, 27 percent female and 73 percent male. Physical Earth sciences, 35 percent female, 65 percent male. Business, 46 percent female, 54 percent male. Okay. Now those are the ones that everybody talks about and focuses on, but let's continue up the chart, which I published in my Substack column here. You know, biological, agricultural sciences 51.4 percent female 48.6 percent male, or arts and humanities 52 percent female, social and behavioral sciences, 61 percent female, education 69 percent female—68.4, sorry, health and medical sciences 71 percent female, and public administration 73.6 percent female. Okay, so how come no one's talking about the gender bias against boys in the pipeline or men applying for jobs or applying for graduate degrees in public administration, health, math, med sciences, education, social behavioral sciences, arts, and humanities in the biological sciences. The asymmetry goes to the other direction. So that, that would back to my example of the fallacy of excluded exceptions. You're only picking on the examples that support the narrative that there's this gender bias.
JK: The data you present—the total number of doctoral degrees, the aggregate total, I think [in] the latest data, women are now earning more degrees than men, at least in US universities. But I just want to, if I may speak for you, I want to disabuse people of the idea that this is two middle-aged white guys complaining that there’s sexism in the university. I don't care that 74 percent of public admin PhDs in the United States go to women. I wouldn't care if it was 80 percent or 90 percent. I'm sure that reflects the pool of qualified candidates. The reason we're talking about this is just as with much of your writing. You talk about this as a statistical comparison, as a heuristic, as a baseline. And the reason we're talking about all the women getting degrees in public administration isn't to complain about it. It's just to say there's a lot of very smart women getting graduate degrees in public administration, more than smart dudes. And if you are a blank slatist, you think, well, this should be 50 percent or right down the line. Humans aren't like that. And the most progressive liberal countries, places like Scandinavia, where women have the most options often because they have most generous government plans, allowing people to structure their households and their careers in the way they want. Those places often feature the most quote unquote sexist distributions of career choice and family time use because men and women are just making, given the freedom, they're making different decisions. I'm actually, I'm not sure if you’ve seen that.
MS: Yeah, I have seen that study and that's a good test of the hypothesis. So, where there are no barriers or next to no barriers, what do men and women choose to do? Because they can choose to do whatever they want. Look, the doors are open. Go ahead, make your selections. And, and the asymmetries are even greater there.
JK: But this is Scientific American. That's exactly the kind of hypothesis that a magazine with the word “scientific” in it should be … there should've been an editor pushing back at someone and saying, “Hey, what about the alternate hypothesis?”
MS: Exactly, right. Yeah
JK: The editors you work with at Scientific American. Did they have a scientific background?
MS: Most of them had science writing as a background because that's what they do. You know, they’re science editors. They’re science writers, and that's a field. You could get a degree in science writing and, and that's what they did. So Mariette DiChristina was my previous boss. She's now at Boston University and the [Dean of the College of Communications]. John Rennie [was] my boss, when I first got hired. He was editor in chief. Mariette was the first female editor in chief at the magazine. I don't think they would have tolerated any of this stuff. They’re gone. There's a new crop of people. Laura Helmuth is the current editor in chief. I don't know much about her. I think she does have a graduate degree. I think she has a doctorate in chemistry or something like that.
JK: Which is great, I mean, I'm kind of a science snob. I'm very fortunate. I did a master's degree in engineering. There are certain conversations and journalistic topics I have found in my career that unless you have some background in physics, the basics of chemistry, basics of statistics, statistics, especially I would say we're going to come back and talk about that a little bit. There's just some topics you can't really understand. And you, you start making basic mistakes. This seems like one of them. This is a total digression.
MS: No, no, no. That's not a digression. I mean, that's an important point that, you know in Bayesian reasoning, there's a problem called base rate neglect, where if I say, well, there's 25.1 percent female graduate degrees in engineering, isn't that bad? My response is, I don't know, compared to what? What’s the base rate? How many people are applying? How many are there in the pipeline? You got to have some comparison. And Thomas Sowell always made this point in many of his books that you could take two groups of anybody. So in America we're obsessed with black-white group differences. But you know, he goes around the world, you know, in China, Russia, African countries, Asian countries, you can find two groups anywhere and compare them. And they're never going to be 50-50. It's never going to be that way. Income or, you know, degrees or job status or home ownership or cumulative wealth whatever you want to measure, you can take any two groups and they're never going to be 50-50. It’s impossible. Because people differ for a whole bunch of reasons that are not related to racism and bigotry and misogyny. You know, just personal interest. It should be okay to choose your own career and pursue something that you want to do without having to be forced into say STEM classes, because that's the current narrative. You don't want to do it, don’t do it. I was interested in astronomy when I was in college. And I, you know, I looked at calculus and all the pretty heavy going math. I thought, well, this is just not for me. I just, I'm not good at this stuff. I gotta find something else. Well, that should be okay, right? But again, the blank slatism can't be that men and women differ at all in, in vocational interests. They have to be the same. No, they don't. And they aren't. And that has to be okay. The big mistake here is in reducing individuals into really stereotype groups. You're not an individual, you're a member of a of a group. It's prejudice. It's reverse prejudice. It's racist, it's misogynist to, you know, take a woman and say, you're not an individual woman with your own interests. You belong to this collective group. And we're going to treat you as part of a group.
JK: I noticed that in the corner of the image, cause I'm looking at you on video, is that an Apollo Saturn 5?
MS: Yes. Yes. Yes. That's the that's the Lego build. Yeah. Yeah. I think you have that.
JK: That that's Lego kit 9 2 1 7 6, I think. And you know, what's great about that one. That's exactly 1,969 pieces, which is a little joke, right? That the, uh, the creators threw in.
MS: Oh, in 1969, right. The Apollo launch. That's funny. I did not know that.
JK: It's not quite the non-sequitur it may seem because as maybe, you know from following my Twitter, I’ve done a lot of big Lego kits with my daughters during the pandemic … But what's interesting is when I was doing the Saturn Five Rocket.
MS: Did you do the Millennium Falcon?
JK: I did the Millennium Falcon and did the Maersk cargo ship, which is a rarity it's actually Japanese. They were not that interested in those. What they were interested in was the Walt Disney's Castle. We just did the Harry Potter Hogwarts. And those are the ones that kind of had a lot of figurines. They were less stereotypically male. And I gotta say, I live in a house, I got three daughters. One of them, my oldest, is super good at math. She's heading to an engineering program, which is something that would not have been possible 50 years ago. So, thank you feminism. But I got to say, it's very difficult to be a blank slatist and to be a father of girls, or of boys. It doesn't work like that. Another segue, I know that you're a very serious cyclist. Do you think being a serious athlete can inoculate you against some of this blank slate propaganda because if you try and advance yourself in any athletic field to a certain extent, you very quickly run up against the limits of your body. You can work out all you want. I played tennis for 10 years, you know, even when I was a younger man, a much younger man, I was never going to be Roger Federer. You and I are never going to be Michael Phelps.
You never were going to be Michael Phelps. Do you think there's something in the idea that it's the idea that blank slatism is absolutely laughable when it comes to athletics and maybe you realize that, and you sort of adapt your thinking when it comes to other spheres?
MS: Yeah, certainly. That's a perfect example. Yes, there's only so much training you can do. And even doping. I mean, you can dope all you want, but unless you're already in the top one percent, you're not gonna win the Tour de France on dope, if you're like a 50 percenter or in the middle of the pack. It just doesn't work that way. And so, so much of it is just, you know, the kind of VO2 uptake, that is how much oxygen can be exchanged between your heart pumping and the blood into the rest of your body and in your muscles in particular, and how much of that oxygen is absorbed by the muscles. You know, that's pretty, pretty genetic. You can train, but there's a kind of an upper ceiling. So you have this kind of, almost like an error bar range. You can go between X and Y, something like that, whatever you're measuring. But there's going to be an upper ceiling that genetics just programs, you know, height and, you know, muscle mass and so on, which is why we have, by the way, gender divisions in sports, because most sports there's a huge difference between men and women, on average.
JK: Michael, you're one of those tourists who buy into the colonialist myth of biological, sexual dimorphism…
MS: Yes. And I'm afraid I am. But so, the second thing is let me just highlight Sally Satel’s article for Quillette a couple of weeks ago, in which she highlighted this AMA document about advancing health equity, a guide to language, narrative, and concepts. As if medical doctors are now supposed to be social justice warriors. The AMA is advising doctors to jettison this narrative of individualism and its misbegotten corollary. The notion that health is a personal responsibility and that a more equitable narrative would expose the political roots of underlying apparently natural economic arrangements, such as property rights, market conditions, gentrification, oligopolies, and lower wage rates. So doctors are now supposed to, instead of treating their patients as individuals, they're supposed to treat them as survivors. We should replace the statement “Low-income people have the highest level of coronary disease” with “people underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers, gentrifying neighborhoods, corporations weakening the power of labor movements among others have the highest level of coronary artery disease.” Okay. The point of my reading, is that it's telling people, you have no chance of succeeding in life. It's over. You lost. And it's not your fault. There's nothing you can do about it, but it's not your fault. It's the fault of the patriarchy or the capitalist or the colonialists or the whites or whatever. I mean, what a, what a self-defeating argument to make.
JK: If my doctor started talking to me like that, well, I'd find another doctor. Like I don't go to my doctor to hear about the inequities of the banking system. Coming back to the Scientific American thing. And this has happened in a lot of trade groups within science, where most doctors are perfectly sane, reasonable, smart, most scientists answer to the same description. It is the case that as with Scientific American, as with a lot of these trade bodies, you have a lot of very highly motivated, maybe well-intentioned socially progressive people, maybe younger people, who have essentially co-opted some very prestigious institutions, Science and Nature, prestigious peer reviewed journals. There's been some whoppers of articles that have appeared in there. Is it the case that this is people with a certain ideological bent? And I mean, to a certain extent, I guess I kind of applaud them. They've taken the initiative. They said, these are the commanding heights ideologically within my field, and I'm going to go get it. And people like you and me have just been kind of lazy. To a certain extent, is this just people working hard within a certain subculture? And at least for the moment, taking over the reins of these institutions?
MS: Yes. I think that's right. And I think if we're going to give the benefit of the doubt to people's intentions, we should think of it like this, that we all saw the George Floyd video and the other horrific police killings of blacks, and the sense is, dammit, we gotta do something about this. Now, most of us can't do anything about it. I mean, I'm not the mayor of a city to reform the police. I'm not the chief of police. I'm not a politician. I'm not a Senator representative and so on. Well, what am I going to do? I'm a science writer. Well, hey, we can do something about this. Now, what is this anti-racism thing about systemic racism? And yeah, what is that Tuskegee experiment when science and the eugenics, and hey, wait a minute. Yeah. Yeah. We have a connection here between science and social justice. Let's bore down and see what we could do. We'll start publishing about this. And then, then we're making a contribution now. So I'm skeptical of the, kind of the, the right wing interpretation of this, that, you know, these people hate America, you know, they hate freedom. They're just trying to destroy our culture. No, no, they're not. These are good people that want to do something. I want to do something. You know, I look around and go, wow, this is, you know, okay, come on. Let's do something. All right. But what, okay. So, you know, and this leads to these protests and marches and, you know, people going down there with their placards, like, they feel like they're doing something, or you go on Twitter and post something because it makes you feel like, well, at least I'm saying something. And again, back to, you know, kind of where we began. It's not enough to just say, well, I think the other side is wrong. The liberals are wrong about this, or the conservatives are wrong about that. And here's my argument for why. And then they have their counter arguments. Now we're seeing more of this polarization that they're not just wrong, but evil and immoral and they should be destroyed. And you know, it's easy to get people engaged at that level, because we do have that evolved sense of, uh, of a desire for justice, seek revenge against wrongdoers who harmed our tribe or our family, or our group, our people or political party, our religion, we're going to go get them. And that is a darker side of human nature. Again, it's not a blank slate. It's there for a perfectly good reason because there are bad people. There are psychopaths out there. You, you, you do have to, you know, signal that you're unhappy about some unfair exchange with somebody else in your group. And, and, you know, we wear our emotions on our sleeves, on our faces for a good reason. We want other people to know we're upset about some injustice. So that unfortunately is what we're seeing now is people engage at this highly emotional state of just denouncing other people as subhuman. And they should be destroyed. Particularly on social media where there's anonymity.
JK: You reproduced some of your correspondence with an editor at Scientific American, and you didn't name who the editor was in your piece, and certainly we're not going to name them here because we're talking about broad trends. We're not here to shame anybody, right? They, this editor took you to task for citing Martin Luther king and Langston Hughes. You were setting them for the principal, you know, maybe judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Martin Luther King to some extent is held in suspicion now because he focused on the individual. MLK preached a message of hope, which is oddly off-message. If the message is it's all about the ineradicable horrors of whiteness, who are we allowed to cite anymore? I mean, and this brings us to, to this latest column, you know, the reason we're having this conversation, the reason I actually revisited this piece of yours, this is very late December Scientific American published—I don't want to say it's the craziest piece they published because like nothing will ever match that. Unless maybe they do a thing about Lego or something—but the piece purported to be a commentary on EO Wilson, the famous scientist who, who passed away, written by a woman named Monica McLemore, an associate professor in the Family Healthcare Nursing Department [at UCSF]. So not so far from where you are. The other articles we've been talking about from Scientific American actually had a thesis and obeyed the forms of argumentation to some extent. This thing was just an absolute mess. There's a sentence in here: “The so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.” This is just blatant bullshit. This was written by someone who has no idea what the hell they're talking about.
MS: I think that piece is not really about Ed Wilson.
JK: She had no idea who Ed Wilson is.
JK: She casually accused him of racism, but cited nothing, like nothing.
MS: No, and she, and she got challenged on Twitter to produce a single writing, a sentence from any of Ed Wilson's massive opus and, and she just punted on it just said, well, you go find it. It's everywhere. It’s like, no, it's not. So this is, you know, the deeper problem here, in addition to being a calumny against, uh, a truly kind, very generous, open liberal tolerant, uh, individual Ed Wilson. He was not a racist. And this gets back to the blank slate thing. You know, he was attacked in the late '70s by Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin at Harvard for being a genetic determinist, even though he wasn't, all he was saying is, you know, look, we have to consider the evolutionary and biological nature of humans, like we do all other animals. So this was the last chapter of his 1975 book Sociobiology. The rest of all the other chapters, like 23 [editor’s note: there were 26 other chapters; chapter 27 focused on humans] other chapters are on all the different animals. And the only chapter that got everybody upset was that he was just making the same application to humans. Again, this is the kind of thing you'd see from creationists, from Christian conservative creationists. But instead, it came from liberal scientists who are atheist like Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin, and they formed the, I think it was the people science or science for the people. I mean, it was something like out of a Monty Python routine. And you know, they were going to stand up against biological determinism, and they lost those battles. I mean, they, they made it public. Wilson himself complained in his autobiography that, you know, why didn't they just come up to my office. I was one, one floor above them or below or whatever. And the answer is because they wanted to play it out in public. They, they did this mostly in the New York Review of Books. So you can read all those essays and, they lost. I mean, Steve Pinker engaged with Gould on this whole subject of biological determinism and, and adaptationism and evolution and so on. And Pinker, I thought really just mopped the floor with them. And I love Steve Gould. I thought he was brilliant. And he was a friend. I thought he lost that battle. He took too hard of a line on biological determinism because the way Ed did it was the right way to do it. And of course, now that book is old. And so there's been a lot of research since then. And so, he was wrong about this or that, whatever, but that's not what this, this author was arguing. You know, she was just saying, we have to deal with his, uh, you know, scientific racism. I mean again, that was then we're talking a century ago when Ray science was all the rage, by liberals by the way. If you read the piece, there's the, she uses that line, that word, that kind of woke language like “black body.”
JK: It’s such a weird phrase. It's such a weird Gothic grace note. It's just this random thing, instead of saying black people, black human beings, it's always “black bodies.” Like we're in some horror film or something.
MS: I see this everywhere. To me, that's a calumny against black people. It implies that black people have no mind, no soul. They're just, they're just meat. Well, of course they don't think that, but they're arguing is that that's the way whites think about blacks. No, it isn't. Not any more.
JK: I’m Jewish, and when I go to Germany, I don't say, do you have any rooms for a Jewish cadaver?
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I know. It's really discouraged, and I keep hoping the pendulum is going to swing back anytime it hasn't started yet, but it may be, I think if enough of us pushed back and say enough.
JK: What I’ve started to see in Canada a little bit is that the people who are pushing back most effectively, they're younger than you and me. They're less white than you and me. And I'm thinking particularly of the National Post newspaper here in Canada. It's the place I started my journalistic career. I still write for them often. I love the place. It's what passes for conservative in Canada, which I guess would be, you know, slightly left of center in the United States. There have been times when they've asked me to write about a particular subject and I look, and it's a subject that's already been covered. These are people half my age, again, much more diverse crowd. And I actually sit back, and I say, you know what? I don't need to weigh in on this. And maybe this makes me like woke, but I'm loving seeing these younger more diverse writers. And I love the fact that on Twitter, you can't get the usual Greek chorus that comes in and say, oh, of course you say that you're a middle-aged white guy. It's kind of nice to watch that happen. My argument is if you're a conservative, even if you like hate the traditional slogans in favor of diversity, at the very least what you should like about diversity is when you get diversity of opinion within all of these groups, they're starting to make their voices heard. Although often they have to overcome the criticism of people within their own groups who call them “Uncle Toms” or whatnot. You wrote for Scientific American for 20 years. Nothing lasts forever. You make that point in your Substack. Is it kind of a blessing to maybe be able to sit back and say, we're in this age where people are going to dismiss what you have to say because you're an experienced male white writer. Like, is it time to let these people talk common sense? Uh, because they just, in this age they have more moral authority to do it?
MS: I don't know. I'm not done yet. I still like writing, and I'm young, I'm young at heart.
JK: Neither of us are putting out to pastor yet. But look, you and I, we're lucky we have an abundance of outlets like books and podcasts, all this stuff. But when it comes to, I'm talking about like, opinion column. Is there a virtue of just guys like us sitting back and, you know, let the kids do it?
MS: Yeah, I see what you're saying. Okay. So it could be that the pushback will come more effectively from younger people. Yes. People in that cohort who may be progressives would expect to be on their side. And these let's say non-conservative. Uh, so they can't be targeted. Oh, you're just a right-wing nut job watching Fox News. No, if there are kind of fellow travelers that have the same goals of wanting more social justice and they come out and say, this is not the way to do it. This is incorrect. This is not going to get us to our goal, that they may listen to more than say they would listen to you and I. That’s possible. But I think just to focus on that, what what's wrong with this approach? This idea that there's systemic racism or it's, you know, it's baked into the DNA of the of the Western world through capitalism and colonialism and so on and so forth. And the problem with that is what are you going to do with that? What's the problem to be solved? You know, Martin Luther King, he specifically targeted areas, cities, bus lines, and so on. There was a huge problem that everybody could see. And he went to the most racist places in the south he could find because that's the problem that needed most solving, and that would get the most attention in the media that would lead to the change of laws there that would then set a precedence for changing laws elsewhere, where the system was not so bad. You know, but this idea that, well, the problem is everybody's racist. Okay, well, what are we going to do about that? Well, we're going to send all employees at Starbucks through a racial sensitivity training program, which they did, and that does nothing. We know there's lots of research now on these. And in any case, as I've said, most people are not like that. They're not racist. They're not bigots. They're trying to do the right thing. So, by putting them through the programs that just irritates them, and then the actual handful of real racist bigots, misogynists that are still out there, they don't care about racial sensitivity training programs there. They believe what they believe that you can put them through all the programs you want. They're still going to come out the other end, the way that they are. So, that's not the solution. The solution is if there is some mathematician behind closed doors and they're looking at two candidates and [in] the final pick one's a male and the other is a female and the guy makes some remark like, well, she might get pregnant, so let's hire the guy. All right. That's the guy that, that's the problem. That guy right there. He’s the problem. Not that there's this systemic misogyny and patriarchy in all of academic mathematics everywhere in the Western world. That's not true. It's that guy right there. He's the problem.
JK: This is close to mind for me because after everything happened in Minneapolis, you had people marching through the streets in Toronto with signs and slogans that says Toronto is no better than many other. Well, and then I crunched the numbers and I said, actually, Toronto police are 30 times less likely to shoot people than the Minneapolis police force. But, but no one wanted to hear that. What they wanted to hear is that we all drink from the same poison water. We all have the same original sin. We're all absolutely irredeemable white supremacists. The air we breathe, the ground under our feet. It's all soaked in the sins of colonialism. They want this totalizing narrative, and they actually don't really care about statistics. And ultimately, this is the problem. I think maybe at places like Scientific American. The data actually just gets in the way.
MS: Yeah, yes, absolutely. But again, it's that race essentialism that’s so, to me, racist. The most important thing I can know about a person is how much melanin they have in their skin. I mean, that should be the least interesting thing about somebody. Yeah. I mean, what, who cares? What difference does it make?
JK: Well, careful. That leads to Martin-Luther-Kingism.
MS: Well. I've been tweeting about this example in last Friday's New Year's Eve. The Wall Street Journal, full page ad, those costs tens of thousands of dollars. Here it is: Watch now at dearwhiteparents.guide. That's the URL and the ad says: “Dear white parents. We can raise an anti-racist generation.” It’s a three-and-a-half-minute film. So, I watched it and, you know, it's parents having conversations with little kids. Well, I have a five-year-old, you know. And it's like, am I supposed to sit them down and go, okay, look, here's the deal. You see that person over there. Did you notice he's black? Cause this is really, really important that you notice that he's black now. It used to be that people like us who have white skin used to think those people with black skin are inferior, but we know better now. So I want you to learn this lesson. Well, now he's got banging around in his little five-year-old head that, uh, okay, so I'm supposed to be looking around the world and, and assessing skin color. This is important. Why is this important? I don't want him to think about people in terms of skin color. This is a terrible idea. And again, I have to qualify this, that, you know, teaching our history, our dark history in history classes, political science classes, cultural studies classes, age appropriate, middle school, high school, and so on. That's all good. We should do that. But, but this kind of idea that, okay, we have a massive, serious, huge racial problem in America. We want everybody to sit down at a, you know, a New Year’s Day dinner and talk about race. It's like really, that's the most important thing we should be thinking about people is their skin color. I find this just appalling … the exact opposite of what Martin Luther King taught us.
JK: Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, host of the Michael Shermer show. And he has a Skeptic Substack column, which you can can find here. Thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.
MS: Thanks for having me. I always enjoy your shows and love the site. Quillette. Very courageous. Keep going.